PARMA, Ohio — For nearly her entire life, Teresa Sikorski has been active in Democratic politics, starting as a 12-year-old who overcame her shyn ess to knock on doors for her big brother’s Cleveland City Council race in 1966.
He lost that time. But her brother Dennis Kucinich went on to become Cleveland’s mayor and congressman, a two-time presidential candidate and one of the most passionate liberal voices in the his party.
This year, Sikorski and her husband, Marty, quietly changed their party registration to Republican so they could vote in Ohio’s GOP primary. Their choice: Donald Trump.
Sikorski, 63, is a vivacious retiree who worked as an aide with the Parma school system and cared for Alzheimer’s patients in a nursing home. She remains a staunch supporter of her brother and the underdog causes for which he has fought.
The centerpiece of her living-room mantel is a family photo with Barack and Michelle Obama at the White House, and on the wall of Sikorski’s hallway is one of her with actor Sean Penn at Kucinich’s wedding.
But the couple no longer sees the Democratic Party — or Washington, under the influence of monied interests — looking out for ordinary people. The whole system, they believe, should be kicked over.
“Trump’s demeanor is a little out there, but he says what he means. He says what the working man says,” explains Marty Sikorski, 65, who used to do quality control for a firm that made fasteners. “He’s not a career politician, and they can’t buy him, and he won’t play their game.”
Although they concede that some of the things Trump says can be jarring, they see that as more evidence he is not simply another glad-hander selling talking points that have been polished to a sheen.
“I listened to everything he had to say. I understood it. I got it,” Teresa Sikorski added. “Everybody else — they’re liars.”
She counts presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton among that latter group. In fact, her mistrust of Clinton predates her embrace of Trump.
If Trump has any path to victory, it is going to be built on the frustrations of struggling middle-class communities such as this one, just seven miles southwest of the arena where Republicans are set to begin their convention Monday.
“I would never have in my life believed I would be voting for a Republican,” Sikorski said. But now she and her husband expect to do so up and down the ballot, including in Ohio’s hard-fought Senate race between incumbent Republican Rob Portman and former Democratic governor Ted Strickland.
Sikorski added that she still respects Obama, for whom she voted twice. However, “he had a message to go forward, and now we’re going backward,” she said. “We have reverted to wars, people getting killed, people coming over the border and ISIS,” the terrorist organization also known as the Islamic State.
For voters such as the Sikorskis and others here, there is also a deeper sense that hard work does not pay off the way it used to.
“Why should somebody who does not want to work live better than people who are working, and have better benefits than people who are working?” said Tim Ali, who one recent morning joined the Sikorskis at their kitchen table, where Teresa Sikorski was serving coffee and her light-as-air, homemade banana cake.
Ali is a real estate agent who was a precinct captain for Trump in nearby Middleburg Heights during the Republican primary.
Like the Sikorskis, he has long been active in politics and until recently was a registered Democrat. He served more than two decades as a city councilman and still has a personalized license plate that says VOTE 4 ME.
Emblazoned across the rear window of his Jeep Cherokee: $21 TRILLION IN DEBT CONGRESS IS BROKEN *TRUMP 2016*
Thus far, the Trump campaign has not had much of a presence here, beyond the coverage the candidate gets in the national media. That raises the question of whether this kind of organically grown support will be any match for the formidable ground operation that Clinton’s campaign is preparing in this crucial battleground.
Where Ohio Gov. John Kasich won the GOP primary statewide by a hefty 11 percentage points, Trump narrowly carried the Sikorskis’ traditionally Democratic precinct, 102 votes to 98. What remains to be seen is whether those numbers, small as they are, turn out to be the germ of a movement, or merely an aberration.
In the mid-20th century, Parma represented the dream of upwardly mobile white ethnics a generation or two removed from their immigrant ancestors — Germans, Poles, Italians, Slovaks, Irish.
The Sikorskis, who have been married for 26 years, moved here 16 years ago from Cleveland, attracted by the for-sale sign on a tidy house that turned out to be just right for them.
In 1956, Parma was the fastest-growing city in the country, its population nearly tripling during that decade. But it has been in decline since the 1970s and now is home to about 80,000 people, which is 20,000 lower than its peak. More than 90 percent of them are white.
Parma “represents the kind of middle-class and working-class people whose economic prospects have stagnated,” said John C. Green, the director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. “The whites in Parma have been drifting Republican, little by little.”
Teresa Sikorski herself acknowledges that her move to the GOP may prove temporary, depending on how the election comes out in November.
“Who knows how I’m going to vote the next time around?” she said.
While people in this area may be put off by some of the things that Trump has said, his larger message is coming through loud and clear.
“The image of Trump as a strong leader, as someone who cannot be pushed around resonates,” Green said.
Trump supporters here will be watching the convention proceedings anxiously, in hopes that it will unite a fractious GOP and provide a restart to a campaign that has hit some bumps lately.
“I think this convention is going to fire up the party again. I think it will fire up the campaign again, and things are going to change,” Ali said.
Ali helped the Trump campaign find office space for its Cuyahoga County headquarters during the primary, but it shut down its operation shortly after, and he said he has had no contact from them since.
That worries him, although he hopes to see a more robust ground operation after the convention. “I believe that’s what’s going to happen, and I’m praying that’s what’s going to happen,” Ali said.
Here as elsewhere, however, Trump generates strong feelings on both sides of the divide.
A few months ago, the Sikorskis put up two Trump signs on their lawn, only to have them stolen the same day. Nor would they feel comfortable wearing hats or T-shirts bearing his name as they take their daily walk in the local park.
Sikorski said she also now avoids discussing politics with her childhood best friend, who is a staunch Clinton supporter. “I’m not going to lose our friendship for that,” she said.
And as for her brother: “Dennis isn’t too happy that I turned Republican — but what can I do?”